The Holy Stall

By Robert Boswell

(1983) The moon was an upturned and empty bucket, only its silver rim visible in all the darkness that had escaped. Don Spitzer knew a storm required clouds and wind and rain, but from his window, he could only see the bucket and the dark. The glass was dry. Who were they trying to fool? Spitzer was an unemployed actor, and he stood before the great black window as if before an audience made invisible by stage lights. He spoke to the only other man in the room not playing cards. “A painter from Long Island, a floor above us, I don’t know his name, told me that this storm will flatten the countryside. Those were his words, flatten the countryside.”

The young man to whom he was speaking, Brigg Hopkins, replied, “I’ve always lived near the ocean. This will be my fourteenth hurricane or hurricane-strength-winds episode.” Brigg Hopkins was sitting on bone-colored chair, reading a novel, his feet on the high back of a matching chair. He was big on books and liked to keep his feet elevated. “I survived them all, you’ll note. I wouldn’t put too much stock in your painter. Not a hurricane capital, Long Island. In a concrete monstrosity like this, I doubt we’ll even notice this little squall.”

As Spitzer watched, the tall lights in the parking garage came to life, followed immediately by low lights that illuminated the lawn. Now he would see it, he thought. He was on the fourth floor and had a good view of the grounds. The first evidence: two gulls whipped about in the wind like plastic grocery bags. Seeing the gulls permitted Spitzer to hear the wind. A big gust encouraged the treetops to cavort with hedges. A zipper of lightning lit the horizon and rain spat against the glass.

“See there,” Spitzer said, indicating the droplets of water. He needed to sit. Standing, anymore, was enough to exhaust him. “It’s a storm, all right, and a bad one.”

The bending trees were Purple Ash, Spitzer recalled. One of the locals had told him, and he had repeated it to himself so he would remember. He had never paid attention to trees, but he liked to know the names of things, especially the odd names, like Purple Ash.

He fell forward but caught himself against the window. The glass throbbed with his heartbeat. A blast of wind hit the building and made it rock back and then pitch forward. Why weren’t the lamps falling over? He understood that he should sit.

“You’re always overdoing,” Brigg Hopkins said. He took Spitzer’s arm and led him to the bear-colored chair in the corner. “Your mouth is wet. You’re leaking a little, Spitz.” He dabbed at Spitzer’s face with a warm, soft cloth.

Their floor had been redecorated in yellows and blues, and some organization had constructed an arch of pink balloons. The sincere effort at false cheer depressed Spitzer. Of the foursome playing bridge, one had the wispy hair associated with the third floor, an interloper, but neither Spitzer nor Brigg Hopkins was willing to play cards, and so the beggars/choosers rule had come into play. Card games had always seemed to Spitzer a waste of time, and there was so little now.

Thought bubbles appeared above the heads of the card players, and Spitzer could read their hands, which meant he was dreaming in the bear-colored chair even though he was not entirely asleep. This had been happening lately with increasing frequency. Earlier this week, while lying in his bed and watching a nurse’s aide read his chart, he had startled at the appearance of a floating man hovering above the girl and making obscene gestures at her, winking conspiratorially at Spitzer. The man was all in black, and he had car keys in his hand, which he poked suggestively at the nurse. Only when the nurse placed a wet cloth on Spitzer’s head did the man disappear.

When the building quit shaking, Spitzer stood and pushed his chair over to the window, near where Brigg Hopkins in the bone-colored chair was reading “Don Quixote.” Spitzer recalled whole cities in Spain the same color as that chair. Or was that France? As a young man, he had taken a tour with his mother: Spain and Italy and France in four weeks. He had promised himself that he would return to Europe, but that was not going to happen. He had been nineteen when they’d left from LaGuardia, and he’d turned twenty in Torino. Their hotel had had a view of the Po River, and his mother had offered to make a gift of a particular girl working the streets. Any twenty year old with a drop of red blood in his veins would want that girl, his mother had said. It still gave Spitzer a fluttering issue of pride that he had accepted the present. It’s my birthday, he’d told the girl in his lousy Italian. I want to pretend to screw you for my mother. She really had been a spectacular specimen, with flawless skin and breasts the size of human heads. It was like there was three of her, he’d tell his lover later, after he and his mother had completed their travel. To whom had he been speaking? Which of his loves had heard that confession? That boy with the soft mouth, the razor-cut hair, a mole on his shoulder, sacral dimples like sacred spoons of flesh. Spitzer couldn’t put his tongue on the boy’s name. He’d been good with names at one time.

He let the wish go. Names no longer mattered; what mattered was the cobblestone esplanade in Torino (he thinks it was Torino), which he does not want to lose merely to recall a name. Cobblestones and his mother, so happy that her son had agreed to come to Europe with her, a trip she never would have taken on her own. What a good son he’d been, and what a happy, desperate woman his mother had been, finding women all over Europe for him to desire, and then starting in on the poor girls of Charlottesville when they returned. She visited the campus often during Spitzer’s junior year — the last year of her life, as it would turn out, as well as the final year of his study. She had dyed her hair the color of persimmons.

Oh, he’d lost it. He’d lost Europe. The persimmons had erased Europe.

He was twenty-seven now and his mother was dead, three of his lovers were dead, he would never return to Europe, he would never finish college. He had become unnaturally old. What was it that the production designer had said to his crew? Age this wall another hundred years. You’ve got thirty minutes. What a crappy film that had turned out to be. It was supposed to have been his big break, a speaking part, nine lines and an injury, a musket mishap. Nine lines and significant on-camera bleeding, but it went directly to video. A Civil War epic with contemporary bookends.

Could movies be bookended? Was that a rational thought?

Spitzer had been sleeping with one of the scenics, and he’d overheard the directive. Age this wall… On his final day of shooting, he’d spent two hours in the barber’s chair — that’s not what they’d called it, what had they called it? — while they attached an arm that would burst into blood and de-attach. His real arm had been put in a harness. I can out act them all with one arm tied behind my back, he’d said, but the laughter had been merely polite.

The lights flickered, which brought curses from the card players. The room tilted with the wind, and a branch from the Purple Ash snapped and spun in the air before lashing the glass. The lights dimmed. We’re finishing this rubber, one of the card players insisted. The window side of the room was so elevated now that Spitzer expected his chair to slide across the floor and crash into the card table like a prow of a ship severing a wave. He had tried to enlist in the Navy. That had been when? High school. He’d learned to tie nautical knots, the Spanish bowline and the jury mast knot. He had imagined himself in a dark blue uniform on the moonlit deck of a great ship, staring out over the dark blue ocean. The great ship idled now in the stormy waters, dipping and rising, suddenly spun by a fierce current, and Spitzer gripped the arms of the bear-colored chair, opening his eyes to the shock of the new paint and idiotic balloons.

Outside, somewhere beyond the window, there came a metallic crashing and squeal. He searched the dark, thrashing view but could not find its source. He thought suddenly of the car his mother had driven, a K Car, it was called, a vehicle so ugly that it did not deserve a full name, only the single initial, boxy and plain and the color of skin. But, no, he was not thinking of the car, the K car had simply appeared to Spitzer, as if it were in the room. The car was blackened around the edges and without headlights, blinded.

“This storm will blow us down,” he said, uncertain that Brigg Hopkins was still listening.

Brigg Hopkins laughed, a slow and rattling kind of expulsion that ended in a wheeze. “It’s the Big Bad Wolf, is it? This tempest? That makes us pigs.”

“I quit eating pig when I was — pork, I mean. I quit eating pork when I was twelve, except for bacon. I couldn’t give up bacon, the smell of it. My mother would fry it up almost every morning. She hated the idea of my becoming a vegetarian.”

“Our parents’ generation was steeped in prejudices of all kinds,” Brigg Hopkins replied. “My father feared Asians, thought they were sinister. When he got drunk, he’d tell me the Jews ran the country, and even sober, every time some actor or news reporter with a Jewish name was introduced, he’d give me a knowing look.”

“It means left-handed,” Spitzer said. “Sinister is derived…”

“My father feared that Asians were left-handed?”

“I don’t know why I’d know such a thing.”

“You’re a fount of worthless information,” Brigg Hopkins said. “Not that I can think of anything that might be worthwhile to know, given our condition.”

“The words to some of those songs… The songs we… There were songs we loved. I’m certain of it.”

Let’s spend the night together. Now I need you more than ever. Blah, blah, blah,” Brigg Hopkins said. “Lyrics are the source of a great deal of human disappointment.” He lowered his feet and stood. “You’ll have to excuse me now. I’m going to the holy stall.”

Spitzer opened his eyes to watch Brigg Hopkins cross the room and disappear behind the gray door that led to the toilets. Back when they’d had more energy, they’d come up with inventive euphemisms, and going to the holy stall covered a number of bodily functions, while going through the motions of the holy stall meant to keep up appearances. The holy stall was the toilet but was also life itself. Everyone is going to die, Brigg Hopkins had said, but none of us wants to let go of the holy stall. Spitzer had responded in kind, a clever reply, something about all the world’s a stall, and all the men and women merely…  something clever. Whatever he’d said, Brigg Hopkins had laughed, and they’d added it to their list.

Fish swam in the darkness of the black pane, smacking against the invisible boundaries of their lives, like a bird crashing into the same window, fooled by the transparency of glass, which was what had happened to them, wasn’t it? The remainder of their lives visible to them just beyond the transparent boundary of health, and oh, how they’d smacked their beaks into… into…

The loud voices were coming from the card table, Spitzer understood, and he was grateful to them, as he had opened his eyes onto darkness, and that might have panicked him if not for their shrill complaint. The lights were merely out. He was not yet at the end of the holy stall.

Emergency lighting came on, low lights that cast shadows up against the walls, Spitzer’s shadow and card players’ shadows, as if they were all characters in a noir mystery. Who was killing all the young men? Spitzer was both the detective and one of the victims, and Brigg Hopkins, his mammoth shadow scissoring across the slanting floor was his partner in detection. Here was the first clue that something was out of the ordinary: none of the staff had entered the room to check on them.

He waited until Brigg Hopkins had his feet elevated to advise him of his discovery.

“Skeleton crew,” Brigg Hopkins agreed, reminding him that this was not a hospital but a clinic. “Nurses and aides hurrying home to beat the storm, while the next shift is unwilling to leave their cozy cottages, and who can blame them? Why brave the storm for us? It would be foolish to die for the dying, on behalf of the dying, not to mention rude, trumping a whole ward of slow-moving men.”

Spitzer laughed long enough to begin coughing, the chord of his stale breath visible in the dim room, hovering above him like an escaped genie. Oh, he thought, yes, that’s what the fable is about. Humans are the magic lamps, and when we’ve used up our wishes the magic is gone, and the lamp is just a hollow, inert thing.

He recalled then a beach, bright in sunlight, and he was a child, holding his mother’s hand, and she was with a man, who had around his neck rusty chains, which could not possibly be right, but that was what little Spitzer had seen, along with the well oiled bodies and his sister, tall and lithe, and oh, god, why did he fall into this trap once again? Facts did not change: his sister drowned in the ocean, but why did his mind insist on reviewing that afternoon? Why that one? He roused himself. He shifted in the chair and opened his eyes. How long had he been out? Not long. The emergency lights were still on and Brigg Hopkins was speaking to him.

“…the full turn of the screw, either,” he was saying, “because we’d never recover.”

The card players were gone. The doors to the bedrooms closed for the night. Only he and Brigg Hopkins, the room in twilight, the muted violence of the storm. What was it that made a life? He’d hardly bothered to consider it when he was well. Now, at least once a day, he wondered. Vitality was part of it, but he’d come to think that choice was the key part. Not making good decisions, necessarily, just having a choice. Without that, you couldn’t have much of a life.

“Were you listening?” Brigg Hopkins asked. “Do you agree?”

“Missed a little,” Spitzer admitted. “I have an idea, though.”

“An idea,” Brigg Hopkins said. “What a novelty for this floor. Please tell me.”

“Let’s escape, Brigg. Me and you.”

“Escape what, exactly?”

“Let’s go out into the storm,” Spitzer said. “Let’s let it blow us around, lift us up into the clouds.”

“More likely splatter us against the parking garage,” Brigg Hopkins said, agreeing nonetheless, dropping his feet to the seat of the bone-colored chair and then to the floor.

“Still a better way to go,” Spitzer said, and without another word, they linked arms like spinsters going for their daily constitutional. They waded through the darkness that cut off their bodies at the knee, until they reached one of the emergency fixtures and they became giants, casting their shadows over the entire visible world. Spitzer pictured again the black-rimmed K car, its gouged, vacant lights. It seemed to him quite horrible.

“I love these balloons,” Brigg Hopkins said, smacking one as they passed under the arch. “They remind me of the foolishness of the living.”

The hallway was empty, as it never was, and they shuffled past the nurses’ station to the elevator, but the button would not illuminate.

“What are we thinking?” Brigg Hopkins said. “We’ll have to take the stairs.”

After the first flight, Spitzer had to sit on his butt and bump down the steps. Brigg Hopkins stood beside him, saying encouraging things. “You never told me,” he said, “who your guests were this afternoon.”

Guests? Spitzer dropped down another stair, thinking. “Who do you mean?”

“Handsome man, overly coiffed, and lovely woman in a fuck-me black dress that just reached her thighs, a pleasant air of disreputability about them.”

“Friends,” Spitzer said. Had that been today? He supposed it had. “Old friends, an outrageous pair, really.” He was huffing and puffing. “Fuck buddies from the days of yore.”

“One wonders doesn’t one?”

“What?” Spitzer asked, dropping down another step. “What does one wonder?”

“Why us and not them?” He cleared his throat. “You’re not going to believe this, and I’m a little ashamed to tell you, but…”

With some effort, Spitzer raised his head.

Brigg Hopkins seated himself on the stair beside him and sighed. “I was never what you’d call promiscuous,” he said sadly. “I had exactly three lovers, and one of them was a woman.”

“I’m sorry,” Spitzer said.

“What about you?”

“Oh, thirty or so, I suppose, but William and Diane — my friends who visited. I’d guess they were deep into triple figures.”

“Of course, they may come down with it yet,” Brigg Hopkins said, an unfortunate hopefulness in his tone, which he seemed to recognize. “Let’s pray not, and yet at the same time…”

“It’s just statistics. Not fate or divine intervention,” Spitzer said, rallying a bit on behalf of his friend, who seemed to have embarrassed himself. “A certain percentage escapes even the worst disaster.”

William and Diane. Spitzer had spent a hedonistic summer with them at a lakeside house. There had been a whole crew of people, including the owner of the place, but William and Diane had been the people at the center of it. He had not much appreciated their visit this morning. He’d felt obliged to smile and recall and feign either fear or bravery, he couldn’t remember which. Always some evidence of emotion was called for, and he no longer had the reserves. Yet at one time he would have claimed to love them, William and Diane. He supposed that it was nice of them to visit. For a long while he had looked forward to visitors, but now he preferred no forward looking whatsoever.

“Survivors,” Brigg said. “I had a friend in that fire in Vegas. The MGM. Something like ninety hotel guests died, and he was on a high floor, to boot, but he was spared, not from anything he did.”

“Luck of the draw,” Spitzer said. “I can say that now. Not before, though. It was all why me, why me.”

“And now?” Brigg asked. “Why is it now, we can just…”

“If it were Saturday,” Spitzer said, “I wouldn’t go out in the storm, because Sunday is Key Lime Pie, and I can still taste the sour things.”

Halfway down the final flight, the emergency lights flickered and died. Total darkness.

“This is how I imagine it,” Brigg Hopkins said. “Lights out, this same hand at my throat.” He was wheezing.

They sat together again, sharing the step.

“The funny thing,” Spitzer said, “is how much they want us to believe in god, some people. Those ones…”

“They woke me up yesterday with their goddamn prayers,” Brigg Hopkins agreed.

“The dark isn’t so bad.”

“I do believe in God, of course,” Brigg Hopkins said. “Just not all 3D, you know? Enough with the beard and lightning. Just some sensible entity, don’t you think?”

“I’m not one to talk about God.”

“Come on, then,” Brigg Hopkins said. “I hate incomplete gestures.”

Spitzer agreed. “We can take the final steps in the dark.” He didn’t get up immediately, though, feeling for the rail, pulling himself up slowly, and having no steadiness, the stairs sifting and sliding about. He took a big breath and let it out. The world settled down. He seated himself again. He would have to continue bumping down. “All right then,” he said.

But sitting had been a mistake, and Brigg Hopkins was dead.

“Oh, dear boy,” Spitzer said when he finally realized, and he propped Brigg Hopkins against the wall of the stairs.

Spitzer eased himself down the remaining steps and used the bar on the exit door to pull himself up. He pushed the door open. The front room on the bottom floor was walled with glass, and a torrent pummeled the great windows. Leaves of the Purple Ash were pressed against the dark transparency, as well as a tree limb, a man’s cap, and a lit flashlight, held in place by the wind, its spray of light frozen against the glass.

Spitzer made it as far as the door, but he could not open it. The fury in the air pushed against it, and he could not overcome that awful power.

*   *   *

He woke in his room, but it was not his bed. It was daylight, and the room was brightly lit, but two small circles of darkness, spaced apart by several feet, remained in his vision no matter how he turned his head. A young woman was seated beside the bed and reading aloud from a novel. He did not know the woman or the novel until he heard Sancho, and he understood that she was reading Brigg Hopkins’s book to him. She was the niece who came now and again with flowers — picked flowers, not purchased, purloined blooms — and magazines. Brigg Hopkins had sent her more than once to the library for books, including the one she was holding.

Spitzer raised himself up on one elbow to examine her, the black circles appearing on either side of her, her face in the middle, as if she were hood ornament. The K Car, he realized, these black spots, even when he closed his eyes, his mother’s ugly vehicle, its gouged headlamps.

“I’m not Brigg Hopkins,” Spitzer said, but the girl kept on reading, and he repeated it in a louder voice.

She startled and looked up at him. “This is his room,” she said.

“And his bed, but I’m not him.” He offered his hand. “Don Spitzer. I was his roommate.”

She eyed the hand but did not take it, which made him examine it — bones covered with frog’s skin. He withdrew the fingered extremity, let it fall against the sheets.

The girl was standing and pointing to the nameplate at the end of the bed. “It says right here, Brigg Hopkins.”

“They put me in the wrong bed,” Spitzer said. “I’m afraid that your uncle died last night during the storm.”

“That was two nights ago,” she said. She produced a crooked, condescending smile. “You’re delirious, Uncle.”

“All right, then,” Spitzer said and nodded. “You must be right. Read to me a little more.”

She was not a lovely woman, but it was lovely to have her at his bedside reading, even though he could not follow the story. Her nose was long, the nostrils flared on either side like the eyes of a snake. Brigg Hopkins had told Spitzer that he hardly knew her. We none of us know one another at all, Spitzer had said, and Brigg Hopkins had repeated the awkward construction. We none of us, he’d said. We none of us.

A man slept in Spitzer’s bed, propped by a mass of pillows, almost upright, a new stranger. The floor had three wards, and you earned your way to this final one by sidling up to death as if to dance.

The man’s breath was labored, and he gave a jerk in his sleep just the way Spitzer often did himself. Spitzer had a moment to wonder whether he had somehow slipped inside Brigg Hopkins’s skin. Or what if the girl was right? What if he had been Brigg Hopkins all along? When the K Car appeared before him again, he understood that it would serve as his hearse. Well, he thought, life was silly, so why shouldn’t death be silly, as well? But then the K Car grew closer, and it did not seem anything but terrifying.

The girl finished the chapter she’d been reading and stood so rapidly that she went out of focus. “I may not be able to come next week,” she said. “I have school and an interview for that position I told you about.”

Spitzer thanked her for coming, and she quickly departed. He climbed from bed — hard work but not impossible. He was wearing pajamas that belonged to Brigg Hopkins. He understood that everyone in the world saw them as interchangeable, himself and Brigg Hopkins. Spitzer was at least a decade younger, but what did years mean anymore? He had become ageless, he thought. Be careful what you wish for… What difference did it make whether the urns were properly labeled? He recalled then of the Purple Ash and wanted to see the line of trees on the grounds and whether they had survived the storm, but the K Car appeared before him, more than life-sized, the paint pitted, a black undercoating showing through. The inside of the car was gone and blackened, as if by fire, but the headlamps came on, shining haloes of darkness into the bright room, which dimmed and vanished, and Spitzer collapsed.

The nurse who found him checked his vital signs and found none. He was dead. She went to the door and called out, “The other one is gone, too.”

“Which one?” an aide replied, the new girl, a redhead who chewed spearmint gum. It was just her second week.

“Hopkins.”

“Were they a couple?” the new girl asked. “My aunt and uncle were like that. He died of cancer and then she died right after, maybe three months later.”

“I think they met here,” the nurse replied.

“Gallows friendship,” the redhead said.

The nurse cringed and turned her face to hide it. The dead man was sprawled across the floor in shape of a question mark. Beyond the window, in the windblown lawn, a man with a metal detector looked for loose change, swinging the metal limb back and forth like a child filling in a drawing with color.

“Get Dr. Anthony,” she said. “I’ll stay with the body.”

Upon the cessation of breath, Spitzer found himself once again holding the bar to the beyond, but this time he had the strength to push it. In fact, the wind yanked the door open, pulling him up into the maelstrom, a dark flight without wings into the swirling nothingness, the sensation of weightlessness becoming his only reality, as one by one he was unburdened of everything, until even thought outweighed the thinker and so became impossible, and Spitzer was no longer tossed by the storm but a part of it, a great dark howling.